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EDITORIAL: George Floyd's death must spur us to change

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Slavery is America’s national sin. For around the first century of its existence, it was legal to own Black human beings and abuse them for labor. Though slavery has ended, its atrocities against the Black community have been followed by a legacy of anti-Black violence and dehumanization in this country. 

Jim Crow followed slavery. The laws made discrimination legal, and the public was sent a clear message by the government: It is perfectly okay to tap into the most evil parts of the human psyche: prejudice, violence and discrimination, and use them to inflict long-lasting scars on Black Americans.

Jim Crow was followed by a prison industrial complex that further disenfranchised America's Black population, sending them to prison as a result of systematic discrimination and unabashed racism, the reverberations of which are still felt widely. Through murder and mass incarceration, racism is alive and well in our nation. 

It has been 60 years since the Civil Rights Movement took form in America, and we are still a nation entrenched with community and systemic hatred toward our Black peers. Worsening this already terrible issue is the fact that police, allegedly designed to protect us from violence, are often the very agents responsible for enacting that violence on Black individuals and communities. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the consequences of such prejudice.

"Indeed this is the ultimate tragedy of segregation. It not only harms one physically, but it injures one spiritually. It scars the soul,” King Jr. wrote.

Listing each and every incident of police brutality against the Black community would be far, far too long for a single article. Here are a few examples of state-racism that have occurred in the past 30 years.

In 1992, following a traffic incident, Rodney King, a Black man, was viciously beaten and brutalized by Los Angeles police officers. He was treated as subhuman and when the officers who forced him to endure the beating were acquitted, riots enveloped the Los Angeles area.

“Fury over the acquittal — stoked by years of racial and economic inequality in the city — spilled over into the streets, resulting in five days of rioting in Los Angeles. It ignited a national conversation about racial and economic disparity and police use of force that continues today,” according to National Public Radio (NPR).

Twenty years later, in 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Martin was stalked by Zimmerman, and when a confrontation arose from Zimmerman’s predatory behavior, Martin was shot and killed. Zimmerman was, like the Los Angeles police officers, acquitted.

“In the end, he was acquitted. The six female jurors found the state had not made a strong enough case to prove that Zimmerman had committed second-degree murder,” according to NPR.

Michael Brown, an 18-year-old from Missouri, was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014. His murderer was also acquitted.

“A grand jury did not indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for any crimes related to the death of 18-year-old Brown in August. Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Brown, who was unarmed and black, in an Aug. 9 incident that has stoked anger and debate in Ferguson and beyond,” according to NPR.

In 2020, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were both killed. Taylor was killed by cops entering home with a “no-knock” warrant. Her significant other, thinking it was a burglary, began firing at the police. She was killed during the altercation. The suspect they were looking for was already in custody. Arbery was murdered by white civilians for jogging.

There are multiple commonalities between these incidents. White people — chiefly police officers — killing Black people for, whether or not a crime was committed, unjustifiable reasons (otherwise known as murder) is one such similarity. Another would be that after each of these incidents occurred (particularly in the case of the Los Angeles riots), it felt as if racial tensions were finally coming to a head. It felt as if, following the protests and rioting and general aftermath, we may be on the way to at least opening a constructive dialogue about these issues in America.

That is clearly not the case. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by a police officer in Minnesota earlier this week. The officer, ignoring Floyd’s desperate pleas for air, kept a firm knee on Floyd’s neck, eventually killing him. The officer’s name is Derek Chauvin.

“Chauvin is the former police officer who was captured on video pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck on Monday as Floyd repeatedly said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Floyd later died,” according to The Washington Post.

Not only did Chauvin commit this atrocity, but he also ignored both Floyd and passersby’s pleas to release his knee from the man’s neck. Rioting has, as a result, swept over not only the Twin Cities area, but also all of the United States.

“Protests over Mr. Floyd’s death spread from Minneapolis across the country, with demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York, Denver and Chicago on Thursday. Protests in Minneapolis have turned violent in recent nights, on Thursday protesters set fire to a police precinct,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Once again, it feels as if these racial tensions, brewing in our nation’s underbelly for centuries, feel as if they are coming to a head. Once again, that is likely not the case. This will not be the last case of state-sanctioned murder of a Black person. This is not the last incident of violent racism that will ever occur in America. And it is all of our faults.

We must use our nation’s history, steeped in racism and inaction, to contextualize the pain we deal with now. We must use our past to recognize how we must act to alleviate these struggles going forward.

Practically speaking, every single police-caused death in this nation has to be investigated by the federal government. Every single one. 

In the case of Floyd, reports state he resisted arrest, and as a result was killed. He did not resist arrest, as we know due to video surveillance. How many undocumented police killings are predicated on lies? The federal government must have a hand in investigating all police killings. That would help ensure accountability — though it would not address the systemic, national racism that predicates these killings.

The President also has a role in times of unrest. While legal authorities include using the army to defuse violent rioting, the symbolic role as a leader is equally as important. President Donald J. Trump opted to use that role to call the protestors “THUGS” on his Twitter account. This does nothing but villainize those fighting for a legitimate cause and undermine the true injustice at the core of this.

Former President Barack Obama, attempting to take the helm as the elder statesman, also released a statement. His, too, was flawed.

“But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station — including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day — to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts,” Obama wrote.

Obama made the mistake of making this about cops who do their job “the right way.” This further dilutes the conversation away from the innocent Black people dying on the street. 

Additionally, it cannot be said that there are any cops that do their jobs the “right way” as long as there are police who victimize Black people unfairly. Until police start holding their colleagues accountable for, among other things, murder, it cannot be said that there are any who do their jobs the “right way.”

Addressing the non-Black public: We must not only be aware of our privileges, but also be aware of the power they wield. We must recognize the consequences of using that privilege in seemingly harmless ways — such as calling the police on a Black person without true, valid reasoning. By doing so, you are endangering their life. This is a time where everybody is going through a lot of turmoil, so it is important to show solidarity.

Community outreach is critical here. First, do your research about the history of discrimination in the United States and understand the context of modern day prejudice. Then, ask your Black peers not to rehash their trauma, but how you can help. Then, do it. 

Performative activism is not the answer here. Posting a hashtag is useful, but for the disingenuous who post a remembrance and do nothing more: Your help is superficial. Meaningful action is a requirement if you truly care for these issues.

The ways you can actually help include donating to Floyd’s family’s GoFundMe page, the Minnesota Freedom Fund (a group that helps free protestors) and Reclaim the Block, a grassroots organization that helps fund community needs.

We must recognize the power our privilege contains. That power can be used to aid our marginalized Americans or it can be abused and cause our discriminated peers unimaginable harm. We must help the Black community resist the oppression it has been subjected to for 500 years.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 152nd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.